As we celebrate this year’s Men’s Health Month during June, we must recognize the specialized health challenges that men, particularly older men face. For example, there is one issue, little-discussed, that many older men have specific risk factors for: malnutrition.
According to the Administration for Community Living’s 2016 Profile of Older Americans, currently, “older women outnumber older men at 26.7 million older women to 21.1 million older men.” And, of those who reach age 65 today, women have a projected life expectancy 2.6 years longer than men.
Why is this? Scientists have offered many answers, such as hormonal differences and genetic differences, but one driving factor appears to be older men’s larger share of deadly chronic diseases—many of which can be controlled through a proper diet, and many of which are also linked to increased risk for malnutrition.
Some examples: compared to women, men are 60% more likely to die from heart disease, 40% more likely to die from cancer, 50% more likely to die from diabetes, and 35% more likely to die from flu/pneumonia. These chronic diseases are all linked to malnutrition and poor diet. Put another way: drinking beer and eating nachos may be good for watching sports, but provide nothing in the way of nutrients—a problem which can come back to haunt men later in life.
What is malnutrition? Simply stated, it is a lack of proper nutrients in one’s diet. Malnutrition is a grave concern for older adults. Up to one out of two older adults are at risk of becoming malnourished, and the cost of disease-associated malnutrition in older adults in the U.S. is estimated to be $51.3 billion per year, according to the recently-released National Blueprint: Achieving Quality Malnutrition Care for Older Adults.
There are many reasons why an older adult might become malnourished: function-associated risk factors, such as lack of ability to chew and swallow or to digest food properly; social and mental health risk factors, such as dementia and depression, both of which tend to cause diminished appetite and food intake; food insecurity risk factors, meaning just not having enough food; and disease-associated risk factors.
Disease-associated risk factors can encompass a wide variety of issues, including the other risk factors—problems with food intake, absorbing nutrients, appetite, or even ability to prepare food. This is of major concern when the rate of chronic disease among older men is so high—these men are at serious risk for malnutrition as well.
The issue is compounded by another problem: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women are 100% more likely to visit the doctor for annual examinations and preventive services than men. These routine visits are generally where dietary problems may be discovered and referrals to registered dietitian nutritionists may be made. Establishing a relationship with a doctor while in good health is vital for the doctor to have a baseline of one’s health—that way, if any warning signs of malnutrition arise such as unusual weight loss or lack of appetite, the doctor has a threshold to work from. Older men who don’t take advantage of these preventive visits (offered for free under Medicare!) are missing this important opportunity.
There is a bright outlook for those men with chronic disease who begin following a proper diet. Per the National Blueprint, “Nutrition interventions have demonstrated positive outcomes in many chronic disease populations, including individuals diagnosed with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).”
No matter your take on why precisely many older men have poorer health outcomes than older women, the risks are clear: older men are prone to many chronic diseases which can lead to malnutrition. We should focus on quality care for those with malnutrition, this month and every month, increase awareness about the importance of eating a proper diet, and work to solve the problem of older adult malnutrition as soon as we can.